The Alaska Papers – Part 1

North to Alaska

The Alcan Highway

By Rick Cleveringa

An early calling

Once, long ago when I was a young teen in the early 1980’s, I opened a National Geographic magazine. Flipping through I saw photos of a man next to a signpost, arrows pointing in all directions. Written in hand painted letters were the names of cities, miles far from that point, and in the next photo was a dirty beaten vehicle on a lonely gravel mountain road. This man had driven to Alaska from the lower 48; part of his trip was on the Alaskan Highway or ALCAN.

The photos peaked a yearning in me to have such adventures. I sat and read the article in full, how he carried extra fuel, food, water, warm clothes, and a rifle. How the roads were impassable at certain times of the year, how you can be stuck for days without seeing another car or truck. It was like reading fiction only this was anything but. This lay somewhere deep in the back of the mind for years, wondering how could a kid from a small town in Illinois ever make such a journey? I had no car, no money and no license, this was pure fantasy.

Later in the High school I met a guy in my Latin class who would become a life-long friend. Back then, Dr, “K” and I shared a strange sense of humor, we played in a garage band together and often hung out in the woods behind his house. In 1984 his older brother had driven home from Alaska. “Man! how was it?” I remember asking. “Uhg long” he said. He was on leave from the Army and distance was only to be concurred. He said he drove for hours on end, his little white car with Alaska plates covered in mud. For him it was only a way to get back. Then a few days later he would turn around and do it all over. That drive, what was it really like I thought?

A third time, in 1991, there was this girl I knew. Her father had this beat 1968 black Ford bronco parked dead in the front yard. By then it was vintage and I asked about it. He said “Oh yea I bought the Bronco brand new in 1968 to drive the Alaskan highway that same year”. “Really!” I exclaimed. He went on, “It was in the summer. Still I only made it up to the Yukon before the snow was too deep and I had to turn around. The gravel roads ruined that truck. It ate the wheel-wells and floor boards right out it. Had to have all welded back in when I got home to Illinois”.

There it was again the Alcan. It would rear up and call to me every so often and I would ignore or fantasize about it for a time. It had to simmer for 39 long years until it no longer could only be though about, it had to respected and realized.

I quit

When I turned 50 something inside just snapped. My life was only 25 years away from me being a diaper-wearing baby again and what was I doing about it? My personal life, which by all means was safe and well, still had a few wrinkles. Something had to give. I went into work one day and thought I can’t be here anymore, so I went home, took the day off to cool down and settle back in. You put your head down, ass up and keep your mouth shut. It is your duty to be there, its your job, that’s what a reasonable man does. Hell they do it daily; you might be doing right now? For years I just had pushed the artist, the adventurer in me down too far. Always going for security and not to live like a man of letters. Thursday when I showed back up. I put in my two weeks and started making plans.

Work makes you Free

After I lay in my letter of resignation, work took on a lighter theme. I no longer had the tremendous stress of all the R+D projects in my queue; it would all keep running on long after I disappeared in to the wilds. My first thought was not the Alcan, not sure when that longing came back from my heart to my head. I had just bought a new 2015 tank green Jeep Wrangler, the kind of vehicle that can take you anywhere. One day I went to the store, needed to lay in some food stocks, Noodles, trail mix, granola bars. It suddenly hit me, I could this I thought, this could actually happen.

Its just what I needed I told myself. But what was the first step… where was all that camping equipment? Searching the house and garage, I dug through boxes and found tents, tarps, cook pots, Kelly Kettle and sleeping pads. The next step was to buy some static window tint for the Jeep’s back, side windows. The tint was to cut out the midnight sun I was so anxious to see as I planed to sleep in the wrangler.

The third step was to configure space between all the gear and a flat spot long enough for my frame. With the back, bench seat removed and the passenger seat in its far forward position it was possible. It was on an angle, but that made just about 6 foot place where one could lie down for a nights slumber. A double layer of foam padding on the floor along with my Therm-a-rest on top should make a comfy bed. I think this might work.

“The Gerry” Can

Finally I packed some tools, a roll of tape and some bailing wire in an ammo box. You never know what you might break. The only real modification I made was to weld up a Gerry can rack out of 1” metal flat stock. It would bolt over the spare tire lugs, bungee cords, a chain and lock to hold the can in place. A wonderful feeling came over me when I bought the new Gerry can at Harbor Freight. It is the kind of thing every guy wants but never really has a use for. That was about to change. I packed up the Jeep and filled the tank. Come Monday morning instead of going to work. I would go to Alaska.

Odometer reading 26349

Monday May 16 2016 4:17 AM. – The back of the Jeep is packed with the last few items. “It will be all right”, I said this to myself quietly. The engine started and excitement took over. Away I go…and immediately the Low tire light comes on. So I have to make a stop to put in some air before I even leave town.

I could see daylight on the horizon, cresting the big blue globe and I wanted to be long gone by now. I stayed on the interstates to fire me out of the land I knew all to well. Cutting up into Wisconsin I made my first gas stop in Camp Douglas. In part for the namesake of the town, the man who was my boss just a few days ago, his last name being Douglas.

Coffee and Gasoline

Up north you can pump your gas before you pay. Once so common everywhere but now it seems so nice and trusting. I grabbed a paper cup of gas station coffee, and was back to the road. This was to be the way of life now, as I would spend hours behind the wheel, stopping only to gas up and see if I could find the worse cup of coffee in each state. This include 3 states or territories in Canada, and by all means, the Canadians have the market on bad gas station coffee. It was as if they merely took an old used coffee filter, ran some boiling water through it and here you go, a piping hot cup of shit. It was terrible, almost comical. On the up side I had two free cups of coffee along the way. Both were in the Yukon and they were the best cups on the 7500 + miles.

The first was in Fort Nelson. The Gourmet girl coffee shop was so nice on the way I up. I made a second stop on my return. The door was open but the shop was closed but there was a young lady cleaning up. She stopped what she was doing, spoke to me like an old friend, and then made me a Cafe Americana. It was strong, rich and had a nutty flavor that made me want more. That young woman was beyond nice.

The second was in some tiny gas station shaped like a log cabin. A very pretty young girl and mother were running the place. The mother in a friendly tone said I could have “A cup on the house”. “OK thanks!”, I go to the tiny counter with hand pump thermos. On a piece of cardboard is written “Organic Coffee”. My taste buds had been assaulted so often by this point, everything amused me, so why Not? I pushed the plunger and pumped black liquid into a tiny cup. It was the best cup in the wild. I enjoyed the dark roasted beans, the pleasing aroma and the waking benefits of hot black coffee. But most of your life on the road is shitty coffee and filling the tank.

James McMurtry

“Looking out through the bugs on the windshield somebody said to me. No more Buffalo, blue skies or open roads”

By the afternoon of the first day the windshield was so crusted with insects I could barely see. The Jeeps design is wonderfully retro, I love the look and style. But the flat windshield attracts every bug within 100 yards of the highways edge. Being flat none escape, each flying shell gets cracked open and spread on the glass like Jelly on toast. I put these insects into two categories:

  1. June bug – this is any of the large insects that hit the glass like a round fired from a .38 caliber pistol. On impact the shiny black insects crack open like a small birds egg. The exoskeleton and wings fly off leaving behind a mostly clear viscous jam with a light green center. Its opaque but a nuisance.
  2. Black Fly – This was any of the smaller bugs that find their demise in my line of sight. Once they break open on the windshield the thorax burst and small red entrails adheres to the glass. The mid section tries to break free but is held to the glass by a light green cable that tethers the head and wings while the rest is wiping wildly around in the wind. A fast blast of wiper fluid will clean up the mess, but one never gets it all.

This is happening with great frequency. You often need to stop at a station just to use the windshield squeegee. I dubbed these squeegees “The Magic Wand”. The further I got northwest the muddier the windshield fluid in the buckets became. Near home it’s the nice clear blue, like a Jamaican ocean. Further up the road it is a muddy swamp, like a bayou in LA. Such is life behind the wheel.

It’s all highway time and I cross the state line to Minnesota, cut through the twin cities and see none of it. North Dakota ahead and I make the State line exactly 12 hours from leaving my home this morning. This brings the feeling of the first accomplishment; I’ve never seen or breathed the air in this part of the world. ND surprised me, a rolling green place with a lot more water then I expected, ponds and streams in abundance.

The friendly green hillsides were covered with strange signs, made of stones embedded in the gassy hills. It took some time but finally realized they were graduating class years. ND was pretty to drive. In Jamestown I got off the interstate and rolled peacefully on old state road 52, yes this is more like it. The sun was going down and I felt beat. So I drove the smooth Blue highway through to Harvey ND with its quaint Western downtown. I found a new hotel The Cobblestone and thought, “OK I’ll get a room a shower and get out of the Jeep for a few hours”. Thats just what I did, a bed, clean sheets a bath, wow so quiet and comfy.

I email “Dr K” and he says did you see O-G? Roadside America shows a giant purple gorilla that once was in this town. I enquirer at the front desk and looked for O-G in his old spot but he has long since disappeared.

DAY 2

Odometer reading 27227 7:00 AM

Sweet sleep last night in a big bed. A new day in front of the windshield and I feel great. All the burdens of work life are done and forgotten and I’m living a dream from 35 years ago. The two-lane is clear and I make for the line, nearing 11 AM I left Portal ND and America.

The Border

Slowing down I pulled up to the Canadian boarder, the young female boarder guard at the window asks me a few questions. I hear the Canadian accent for the first time. She hands me a yellow ticket and tells me to come in the main building. I walk in and sit down with a few others waiting. There are strange conversations with even stranger fellow travelers, and soon I would come to the harsh realization that I am not going anywhere for a long time. There was one young couple waiting, they were hauled off to separate rooms for integration. There was a gray man, his body leaned heavy against the counter. In his friendly tone he explained the medical reasons why he has all those drugs in his truck. They took him to a private room. Now I just wait, which would be 2 more hours.

Why does one feel guilty under the guise of authority? I did nothing wrong and would not likely do anything troublesome to the Canadians or there land? But here I was stationed in a pale blue hard plastic chair from the 70’s, holding a stupid yellow coupon to freedom. A fireplug of a woman in uniform called me to the counter. Through thick specs she reads my yellow ticket and said go wait at the red counter they will processes you there. At the red counter I stand and wait. Behind the counter I count 6 cubicles with computers and no people in them. I count 7 more computers at the red counter and no one is there either, It’s a ghost town. After 20 minutes of standing by myself, a line of one, an official looking a little like Frank Oz came over. He says “Where are you driving?” At least I thought he said that. I say Alaska. He says in a louder more authoritative tone “WHAT are you DRIVING?” Oh green Jeep I say. He looks at the yellow ticket and the keys in my hand. He says “I need your keys” and I drop them and my jaw on the red counter. I ask can I use the restroom? Just WAIT he barked.

The Land of Oz

Now I have to sit in the next area while he ransacked my car. My little home for the next few weeks is being tossed and there was nothing to be done. So I slept in the chair until the little blonde girl called. “Sir, Sir you have to see the officer by your vehicle”. I went out in the sunlight and walk to my car. He was standing there with most of my camping gear on the ground. As I got closer he said, “You have to take the top off”. When I heard this I thought what the FUCK! I m not taking the top off you dick! What the hell do you think you can find? Prick! You fuckers have kept me hostage for 2 hours. Then the little man with mustache said in a friendly Canadian tone “To let the wind through your hair” He is smiling but I am not. Now he is all friendly and wants to talk about the Jeep. He’s making small talk and I just want to get the fuck out of here. I say “Can I use the restroom now?” Right that way he pointed. He told me I could put my gear back in my Jeep and go when I returned, and after I used the can, he was still there, my gear spread on the pavement and he wants to chat me up. As I was tossing my equipment back into the Jeep, he was prattling away. I wonder if he felt better when he finds contraband or when he does not? Soon it would get windy, too windy but you would not want this in your hair

Through the Canadian prairie.

When you think of the word Saskatchewan what comes to mind? From now on I will think of the flat unattractive landscape, filled with pipelines, strip mining, dust, bad winds, terrible roads and a dry colorless backdrop for a long boring movie.

The road ran North-by-North West, the head wind so strong the Jeep struggled against it. I swear I had the peddle on the floor just to make 70 mph. When the semis came in the opposite direction at 100 miles an hour, you could feel the car stop momentary, then the hood would damn near blow off before you resumed driving at top speed. Rocks beat the windshield mercilessly. The stones thrown by trucks hammered the glass so hard I expected it breakout several times. I tallied the major rock hits, 7 in about 2 hours and numerous light strikes. It sucked. One stone drove a conical fracture so deep that a line spread across the windscreen on the first warm day back home. The Jeeps first battle scar.

North Dakota was green and hilly with nice watering holes all about, now just miles north it was one industrial wasteland. Iron pipes and dusty trucking roads with names like Pipeline road, Gas road, they intersected the highway and produced lots of heavy truck traffic. Around any standing water there formed a ring of white alkalized residue, and where the water had evaporated completely, there stood a white crust on the earth. Was this pollution from mining? Is the soil just filled by alkaloids? It was a terrible looking place with only gas stops and muddy magic wands along the way.

Once I headed due north the wind stopped beating the hell out of my driving, now the trucks were to the South. Traffic thinned and the land greened up. This was great relief. Finally it was evening and a stop in Saskatoon for the night in a motel room. That night I went down to the pool and relaxed. The shoulders feel the hours of clenching the wheel in the headwinds all day, and a little time in the pool helped soften the aching muscles. Last sleep in a bed for some time and I rest well. In the Morning I look for the highway North, the road signs are small and faded, hard to read and hard to find. Had to make a U-turn to pick up Kings Highway 16, I will be glad to leave the city of Saskatoon this morning and head to the grand open.

DAY 3

After yesterdays defeat at the border and a lower mile day, I decided to make a run for it, coffee, gasoline and the magic wand the only distractions. Highway 16 took me to Lloydmister and crossing the line into British Columbia then into Edmonton. Beef jerky and trail mix my companions, as I make way further northwest to Crooked Creek, Grande Prairie and Beaver Lodge for bad coffee and gasoline. On to Dawson Creek and the Zero Mile.

On this day three, I was missing my travel companions. There have been the four of us guys, road trip buddies, real friends from long ago. We met under strange circumstances, yet somehow seemed to have a special connection, a bond that was undeniable. When the four of us are together all things seem possible. While we cemented our friendship more than 25 years ago, a road trip south came up and it was a blast. We have traveled 10s of thousands of mile since, yet here I was, on some of the most scenic country, on a road completely empty and they were not there. It was odd.

I missed TC, his wiry jokes. They are un-insulated and electric, they are shocking, and they send sparks in every direction. I missed his un-diapered mouth. He is the most kindly and saintly little man you could know, yet he is capable of the foulest most horrific statements, diatribes so mortifying, tirades so insensitive that you feel uncomfortable when you hear them, but you laugh till your sides hurt. All because you know he is the sweetest guy alive.

I missed RP, his steady calm; his new Zen like reasoning that he exudes. This man has ice water in his veins. Once I saw him drive 90 MPH barely missing a Mississippi State trouper who, standing in the road by a mudslide, frantically waving for us to slow down. The cops face was red as a monkey’s ass as he was screaming, “Slow the HELL DOWN”. RP never missed a beat nor took his heavy foot from the accelerator. Today I could use a reasonable portion of the steady hand at the wheel for this monster 65 hours one-way drive.

I missed double B, his attention to detail, his planning, the spreadsheets, his nervousness on the edge of adventure. Once the real adventure hits, there is a light in his eye. A real spark that says I am afraid and we are going to die but this is Great! It’s a lux I have not seen in other men’s eyes before. You know he is alive and if you are observant, this light feeds your own life and you know you have shared real adventures with him.

“Damn I wish they could see this road,” I said to a package of beef jerky.

*Continue the journey with Part 2 of “The Alaska Papers”